Boeing goes from bad to worse
A look inside the drama that plagues the company
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Amazingly, Boeing's reputation has managed to hit a new low, said Natalie Kitroeff at The New York Times. The company released a catastrophically damning trove of documents to congressional investigators last week that included "conversations among Boeing pilots and other employees about software issues and other problems with flight simulators" for the 737 Max, the plane involved in two fatal crashes. Employees distrusted the plane and the training pilots would get to fly it. "Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft?" asked one in an email exchange. "I wouldn't." Another said the Max was "designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys." The messages "further complicate Boeing's tense relationship" with the Federal Aviation Administration, which can't be pleased to read the disdain with which Boeing treated regulators. "I still haven't been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year," one employee said in 2018. The memorably incriminating quotes aren't even the worst part here, said Dominic Gates and Steve Miletich at the Seattle Times. Boeing might say these were just employees blowing off steam, but there's no way to explain away more "sober" internal emails that show "a culture that prioritized cost cutting over everything else."
The fact that we're finding out about this now underlines "deep-rooted cultural problems at Boeing," said Brooke Sutherland at Bloomberg. The company claims it brought these documents to the FAA in December as a "reflection of our commitment to transparency." Please. That was nine months after the agency grounded the Max. "It defies reason that no one at Boeing knew that the company was sitting on another mountain of troubling messages." After this episode, it's going to be even harder to win back public confidence in the Max, said David Gelles in The New York Times. "According to Boeing's own research, 40 percent of travelers are unwilling to fly" on the Max — if it ever returns to service. Boeing once "represented the pinnacle of engineering," but its relentless focus on safety gave way to "obsessing over the bottom line." Said Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the heroic pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River, "We've seen this movie before, in places like Enron."
That's right, said Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times, and just like at those places you need to lay the blame at the feet of the board of directors. The root of this crisis can be traced back to 2011. "Under explicit pressure from the board" to find a cheap way to build a new plane, then-CEO James McNerney decided to modify the aging 737 design instead of "designing a new aircraft from the ground up." At least seven of Boeing's 13 current board members were there in 2011 — including David Calhoun, the new CEO. This is a board full of celebrities, such as former South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Yet it has nobody with any aerospace engineering experience, since the departure of Dennis Muilenburg. Boeing says it will require "safety-related experience as one of the criteria" for choosing future directors. That invites the question: "Why only now?"
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, try the magazine for a month here.